Threshing Torah

Each year on Shavuot I debate whether or not to stay up all night. After a few hours of learning Torah, inevitably my eyelids begin to droop and I realize that I am unlikely to retain anything else. I could stay up all night, but wouldn’t it be better to wake up early to study when I’m more alert? This question is in fact the subject of a debate between two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, each of whom offers an opinion on the proper time for studying Torah. Their debate appears in Shir Hashirim Rabbah in the context of their exegesis of the words שחורות כעורב, “black as a raven.” Punning on the two Hebrew words, the midrash explains that Shchorot refers to Shachar (dawn), and Orev refers to Erev (evening). So too is Torah learned only by one who wakes up at dawn and goes to bed late in the evening, thereby maximizing time for study. But for those of us who can’t burn the candle at both ends (a phrase that refers not to both ends of the candle, but to both ends of the night – that is, late in the Erev and early in the Shachar), is the late night or the early morning the preferred time to learn? Here is where Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish chime in:

Rabbi Yohanan said: The threshing time for Torah is only at night, for it says, “She rises while it is yet night” (Proverbs 31:15), and it also says, “Arise, cry out in the night” (Lamentations 11:19).
Reish Lakish says: Both by day and by night, as it says, “You shall meditate on it day and night.” (Joshua 1:8)
Reish Lakish said: Rabbi Yohanan was right in teaching me that the threshing time of Torah is only at night.
Said Reish Lakish: After I had labored at the Torah by day, it was remembered at night, as it is written, “And you shall meditate on it day and night.” (SSR 5:11)

Before trying to make sense of these opinions, it is worth pointing out the strange use of the words Grana shel Torah, which I have translated as the “threshing” time for Torah:
אין גרנה של תורה אלא בלילה
The Goren, as we know from Megillat Ruth, is the threshing floor – the place where the stems and husks of grain are beaten to separate the seeds from the straw. The English word “thresh” also means to discuss or examine an issue repeatedly, which may reflect the notion that the agricultural activity of threshing requires the repeated shaking of each stalk of grain until all the seeds are removed. In Hebrew, the word גורן , whose root meaning is “collection,” refers not just to the threshing floor but also to the harvesting season — that is, the time of year that is celebrated on Shavuot. The term גורן thus connects both the agricultural and the historical significance of this holiday – it is a harvest festival but it is also a time of receiving and learning Torah. Or, to use an English pun that approximates this double entendre, it is a time both of collection (of grain) and of recollection (of Torah).

Reish Lakish, after trying to learn Torah both by day and by night, realizes that Torah cannot be learned all the time. His final two statements seem to contradict each other — If he agrees that Torah is threshed only at night, why does he then say that he would labor in the daytime to find that his Torah became remembered (נהיר — a word that Jastrow defines not just as “bright” but also as “remembered”) at night? Perhaps this contradiction can be resolved as follows: Reish Lakish comes to accept that the Torah that is collected in the day (the proper time for learning Torah) must be recollected at night. This notion is attested by modern research into the science of sleep: Neuroscientists tell us that it is during sleep that our brains compact what we learn in the day and transform it into long-term memory. We can learn all day long, but unless we allow our brains time to recollect all that we have collected, we will not retain much.

The experience of learning and forgetting Torah is an appropriate subject for Shavuot, because elsewhere in Shir HaShirim Rabbah we learn that the children of Israel went through the experience of learning and forgetting Torah while standing at Mount Sinai at the original Zman Matan Torateinu:

At the time when Israel heard “I am the Lord Your God,” Torah became fixed in their hearts, and they would learn Torah and they would not forget it.
They came to Moses and said: Moshe Rabbeinu! Be our intermediary!! As it is written, “You speak to us and we will obey, but let not God speak to us lest we die” (Exodus 20:16). What would be the point of our dying now??
Immediately they went back to learning and forgetting. They changed their minds and came to Moses. They said: Moshe Rabbeinu, if only God would reveal Himself [directly] to us again! If only He would kiss us from the kisses of His mouth! If only Torah would become fixed in our hearts as it once was!
Moses said to them: It is not the case now, but in the future it will be, as it is said: “I will put my Torah into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). (SSR 1:2)

This midrash teaches that the first commandment was fixed in the hearts of the Israelites such that they learned Torah without forgetting it. But something about this experience was too much for them, and so they asked Moses instead to serve as their intermediary. When they learned the rest of the commandments from Moses, they began to forget Torah, a condition that (as per the midrash) will continue until the eschatological realization of the messianic vision described by Jeremiah.

What was so unbearable about learning Torah without forgetting it? Perhaps the answer becomes clearer when we consider a parallel midrash that follows immediately after this one in Shir Hashirim Rabbah:

At the time when Israel heard, “You shall not have other gods,” the evil inclination was uprooted from their hearts. They came to Moses and said: Moshe Rabbeinu! Be our intermediary! As it is written, “You speak to us and we will obey, but let not God speak to us lest we die” (Exodus 20:16). What would be the point of our dying now??
Immediately the evil inclination returned to its place.
They changed their minds and came to Moses. They said: Moshe Rabbeinu, if only God would reveal Himself [directly] to us again! If only He would kiss us from the kisses of His mouth!
Moses said to them: It is not the case now, but in the future it will be, as it is said: “And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh” (Ezekial 36:26).

This midrash about the evil inclination describes a similar process as the previous midrash about forgetting: In both texts, first the children of Israel hear a commandment in a manner that is too much for them; then they plead with Moses to serve as a buffer; then they regret that decision and are told that they can only return to the former state in the messianic future. But what is it living without the evil inclination that is too much for them? To answer this question, we might look back to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, before they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What was life like for humanity before the evil inclination became part of the fabric of their being? The Torah does not tell us much about this experience, but inspired by our Shir HaShirim Rabbah source, I am tempted to imagine that Adam and Eve were bombarded constantly with blasts of “I am the Lord Your God” driven into their ears both night and day. They could not sin because to do so would be to bump into the legs of the divine presence (Chagigah 16a). Everywhere they turned they heard the piercing and deafening cry of God’s revelation. They lived in a constant and terrifying ever-present awareness of God, a state that Wordsworth romanticizes when he says, perhaps echoing the psalm for Elul, “I only have relinquished one delight / To live beneath your more habitual sway.” So when the snake came on to the scene and offered them a chance to banish God from one tiny corner of Eden, they leapt at the opportunity.

And since the two consecutive Shir Hashirim midrashim so closely parallel one another, I must imagine Adam and Eve learning Torah, too. What was it like to learn Torah in Eden? There was no toil, because Adam had not yet been cursed. Nor were there any fertile and fruitful insights born, since Eve had not yet received the curse of the pains of childbirth. Devoid of toil and pain, learning Torah was an experience that required no effort from Adam and Eve. They did not have to struggle to learn because they never forgot anything. The midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer comments on the Torah’s statement that Adam was placed in the garden “to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15):

“And what work was there in the garden, such that it is said ‘to work it and to guard it’? If you should say that there is labor in Eden—to plant the vineyeards and plow the earth or pile or cut the grain—didn’t all the trees blossom on their own? And if you should say that there was labor in Eden—to water the garden—wasn’t there a river that went through the garden? What did it mean to work it and to guard it? They would preoccupy themselves with the study of Torah and guard the way to the tree of life, which is Torah.” (PRE 13)

Until they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve had no evil inclination, and nor did they ever forget Torah. In the messianic days, when we are all laid to rest in an eternal garden of Eden, we will be restored to this pre-lapsarian state. We will have no evil instinct (because how can there be evil in a world that is Kulo Tov?), and we will not forget Torah. It is hard to imagine what it would be like to learn without forgetting. If everything that we have ever learned is constantly present in our minds, then there is no sense of time; every moment is ever-present, and thus every moment is the present. A world of no forgetting is like a wrinkle in time – a tesseract in which every moment can be conflated into the present one, and (given that there is no evil inclination) the Presence is always present.

As I stay up well past 2am writing this d’var Torah on Leil leil Shavuot, I am reminded that the world in which we live is a far cry from the Edenic end of days. We live in a world in which our evil inclination often gets the better of us, and a world in which much of what we learn tonight will be forgotten in the morning. We will have to relearn and review our Torah, and even “sleep on it” before it becomes recollected in our minds. We will have to go down on our hands and knees and beat out the seeds of new ideas from the stalks of the old. And yet it is this very toil that we rejoice in and celebrate at Zman Matan Torateinu. “Lie down for the night,” Boaz says to Ruth, inviting her to join him on the threshing floor after she has spent the day collecting sheaves of grain. “Then in the morning, if the redeemer will come, good! Let him redeem.” On this holiday of Shavuot, we take our places on the threshing floor of Torah to learn and forget and then learn again, awaiting the redeemer.

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